Much of November has been extraordinarily mild, but doubtless this will change and the real winter will be upon us before you can say Jack Frost. Then it will be time to make sure that we are weel happit up. Should you be unfamiliar with this phrase, it is the Scots equivalent of English “well wrapped up”, but more so.
Whenever I think of cold, snowy winter days, this expression comes back to me because I spent my early childhood winter days in a weel happit up state. It was basically the layered look, but long before this fashionable expression was coined and it certainly lacked the elegance that it suggests.
The basis of the weel happit up look was a vest or semmit or even, for girls, a liberty bodice. You will have to be pretty old to have worn one of these, because they ceased to be popular around the 1950s. A liberty bodice was a close-fitting sleeveless undergarment for the upper body made of thick soft cotton. It took its name from the fact that it was considerably less restrictive than its predecessor, the corset. That was before my time.
Over the vest, semmit or liberty bodice went several sweaters, usually wool and often scratchy, followed by jacket and coat. Then the accessories were piled on, scarf, hat and gloves, the gloves often being replaced on female hands by mittens, called pawkies in Scots.
And there you have it – the weel happit up look. It was intended to keep you warm and cosy on freezing days, but it went further. It often made the wearer too hot and consequently sweaty, especially if he or she was hurrying to catch the school bus.
The word happit comes from the verb to hap, meaning to cover, often with the purpose of sheltering or concealing something. This has been in use in Scots since the 14th century and is derived from Middle English.
The verb hap can be used with reference to a person, as when you hap an invalid up in a blanket or hap a child up in bed. It can also be used with reference to covering something such as potatoes or plants with earth or straw to protect them from the cold and wet.
Other uses include covering a corpse with earth in the grave and making up a fire so that it will continue to burn slowly for a while. Figuratively, it can be used of mist covering the tops of mountains or people happing something away that they might have need of later.
Hap can also be a noun meaning a covering of some kind which provides protection against the weather. More specifically, it is used to refer to a shawl, plaid or outer garment, or to a blanket or quilt
The weel happit up look is not nearly as common among children as it once was. Well, many of them don’t really need to be wrapped in several layers nowadays, do they? After all, they only have to take a few steps from their front door to the vehicle that will whisk them away on the school run and fetch them back again. They see little of the great outdoors.
The real reason, however, that the weel happit look is not popular among the young is that it is just not cool. Well, by very definition, you wouldn’t expect it to be cool in terms of temperature – but it is not cool in terms of image, and image is everything these days. Many young people would not be seen dead in the weel happit up look, preferring to wear skimpy T-shirts and show off bare midriffs even in the coldest of winter days. It is a wonder that more of them do not suffer from hypothermia. At least the weel happit up look prevents that.
Betty Kirkpatrick is the former editor of several classic reference books, including Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. She is also the author of several smaller language reference books, including The Usual Suspects and Other Clichés published by Bloomsbury, and a series of Scots titles, including Scottish Words and Phrases, Scottish Quotations, and Great Scots, published by Crombie Jardine.